From Her Infirmity Came Great Strength… The Story of God’s “Rock Star”

The poet, Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), became an “invalid” in her early thirties, but what later flowed from her heart and pen was mighty and was used by God.

singer-lThe true story of Charlotte Elliott, however, begins long before her conversion…

You see, Miss Elliott as she was known, was carefree, a popular artist and a writer of humorous verse. She was both beautiful and talented. Everyone loved to hear her sing. Being energetic and coming from a well to do home, Charlotte Elliott was part of the scene. She was in demand. Today, we would call her a rock star.  But as it was, Charlotte Elliott was the center of attention in her world and she loved it.

Then disaster struck…

In her early thirties, Charlotte Elliott went from being an artistic carefree spirit to a woman who was in constant pain. . . A severe illness had left her a permanent invalid, and it was said afterwards that “Ill health always beset her.” Besides the general trying influence on the spirit, her sickness often caused the peculiar pain of depression, the pain of a seemingly useless life. You can imagine, that her debilitating condition must have been especially galling considering that the large circle round her was full of unresting motion, which they were using for serviceableness for God.  Such was the time of trial for Charlotte Elliott; the year was 1834, and she was now 45 years old and living in Westfield Lodge, Brighton.

But as God often does, God came to Charlotte Elliott, and called her back to him…

Miss Elliott’s father had become a godly man and a silk merchant, at whose house the servants of Christ were often entertained. Her brother, the Rev. H.V. Elliott, had not long before conceived the plan of St. Mary’s Hall at Brighton, a school designed to give at nominal cost, a high education to the daughters of clergymen; a noble work which is to this day carried on with admirable ability and large success. So it was at this point, that in aid to St. Mary’s Hall there was to be held a bazaar and afterwards a dinner party.

As part of the party, Charlotte Elliott was to sing…

Westfield Lodge was all astir; every member of the large circle was occupied morning and night in preparation with the one exception of the ailing Charlotte — as full of eager interest as any of them, but physically fit for nothing. The night before the bazaar and the dinner party, she was kept wakeful by distressing thoughts of her apparent uselessness; and questioned the reality of anything spiritual and wondered whether it was anything better after all than an illusion of the emotions, an illusion ready to be sorrowfully dispelled.

During the dinner party, Charlotte sang her piece.  It was a pretty piece, gay and witty but it was said to be a bit worldly. As the gathering sat conversing and winding down, an elderly man, who was unknown to Charlotte (but who was none other than the great preacher and evangelist, Dr. Cesar Malan, of Geneva), approached her and asked if she knew herself to be really a Christian. She told him that she considered him rude and unkind, and that she also resented the question thus so pointedly put, and also petulantly answered that religion was a matter that she did not wish to discuss at all that evening.

Dr. Malan replied in his usual kind manner, that he would not pursue a subject which so displeased her, but would pray that she might give her heart to Christ, and employ her great talents with which He had gifted her to his holy and spiritual use.

It seems that the Holy Spirit used her abrupt and almost rude conduct towards God’s servant to show Charlotte what depths of pride and alienation from God were in her heart. Charlotte Elliott didn’t sleep at all that night.  And after several days of spiritual misery, Charlotte apologized to God’s servant for her unbecoming conduct, and confessed that his question had troubled her greatly. “I am miserable” she said, “I want to be saved. I want to come to Jesus; but I don’t know how”. “Why not come just as you are?” answered Malan. “You have only to come to Him just as you are.”  Little did Malan think that his simple reply would be repeated in song by the whole Christian world! Further conversation followed, and this good man was enabled to make perfectly clear to the once proud but now penitent young lady God’s simple way of salvation through Christ; that on the ground of His shed blood for us, all who from their heart believe are accepted of God. She gathered up in her soul the grand certainties, not of her emotions, but of her salvation: her Lord; His power: His promise. And taking pen and paper from the table she deliberately set down in writing for her own comfort the formulae of her faith … so in verse she restated to herself the Gospel of pardon, peace and heaven…. there, then, always, not at some past moment, but “even now” she was accepted in the Beloved, “Just as I am”. As the day wore on, her sister-in-law, Mrs. H.V. Elliott, came in to see her and bring news of the work. She read the hymn and asked (she well might) for a copy. So it first stole out from that quiet room into the world, where for many years it has been sowing and reaping, until a multitude which only God can number has been blessed through the message”.  Miss Charlotte came as a sinner to Christ, and remembering this event wrote the hymn that has made her name famous everywhere…”Just as I am

Just as I am – without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Meet this great Christian: Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871).  Charlotte Elliott was possessed of rare literary gifts and when in the year 1836 she assumed the editorship of the “Yearly Remembrancer”, she inserted in the first number, this now long-famous hymn — without her name. A commentator says of this hymn, “With its sweet counsel to troubled minds it found its way into magazines and other publications, and in devout persons’ scrap books; then into religious circles and chapel assemblies; and finally into the hymnals of the church universal”. Sometime after its publication, a lady, struck by its beauty and spiritual value, had it printed in leaflet form for circulation in cities and towns of the kingdom. Miss Elliott, in feeble health, was then in Torquay in Devonshire, under the care of an eminent physician. One day the doctor, who was an earnest Christian man, put one of these leaflets into his patient’s hands, saying that it had been helpful to him and felt sure she would like it. The surprise and pleasure was mutual when she recognized her own hymn and he discovered that she was the author.

As one hymnologist noted:  We know not which to admire most, the beauty of the composition, or the lovely modesty of its author, who for so many years forbore to divulge its origin.

Though weak and feeble in body, she possessed a strong imagination and a well-cultured and intellectual mind….. Her verse is characterized by tenderness of feeling, plaintive simplicity, deep devotion, and perfect rhythm. For those in sickness and sorrow, she has sung as few others have done.  — Dr John Julian 

The testimony of Miss Elliott’s brother, (the Rev. H.V. Elliott, editor of Psalms and Hymns, 1835) to the great results arising from this one hymn is very touching. He says, “In the course of a long ministry I hope I have been permitted to see some fruit for my labours; but I feel far more has been done by a single hymn of my sister’s”. It ranks with the finest hymns in the English language. Its success has given rise to many imitations.

Charlotte Elliott died in Brighton in 1871. She is buried, along with her brothers, in the churchyard at St Andrew’s Church, Hove.